How being a first-generation American has made me who I am

I am, as I once called it, an “accidental American.” Both my parents are Italian immigrants who left their homes as teenagers, met here, and decided not to go back. My mother especially made her choice on a whim; if it wasn’t for her bravery and faith, I might never have been born. My mother would have returned to her family in Italy, and I would never have the life that I have.

Being a first-generation American has altered my perception of what it means to be an American, and it has definitely made me who I am.

It has made me into a workaholic

That old cliche that my parents had nothing when they came here isn’t entirely true—they had relatives here who helped them get their start. But it is true that everything my sisters and I have was built by my parents’ hard work and blind dedication. At 15 years old, my father was working at a sheet metal company by day and learning English in night school. It took him only months to learn the language, which was a testament to his intelligence, an intelligence that was never allowed to flourish because he stopped going to school when he was only 10 years old.

My dad has been working for 55 years, ever since he was 10. In America, not only is that unheard of, it’s straight-up illegal. But my father has always seen work as something to be proud of, from the most menial tasks to being head of a company. Now, he owns a successful restaurant (in business for 40 years) and has been able to support a family based on that work ethic.

My father has definitely transferred that work ethic to me. I worked all throughout high school and college, since I was 13 years old. During college I also interned, and after college, I worked two other jobs while freelance writing, trying to put together a career for myself based my stubborn dream of being a writer. My parents definitely inspired me to keep working toward that goal: if they could come here and build all of this out of nothing, then I felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

It’s definitely made me mindful of the luxuries we have. 

My father grew up on a farm in 1950s Sicily, in a very small medieval town that’s beautiful, but didn’t have things like heating. They ate around a table with a coal-burning furnace under it, and slept with warming pans in their beds. My mother’s family was also working class, and if not poor, definitely not wealthy. They lived paycheck to paycheck, moved around frequently, and always rented their apartments in industrial towns in southern Italy. It was another world, like something out of a book.

I think of all the luxuries we have here: heating that kicks on when you just toggle a switch, central air conditioning, separate rooms for my sisters and me growing up, and the real marker of success: a college education. Or at least the opportunity to have a college education, something that was definitely not available to my parents.

Growing up, most of my friends and peers took it for granted that we were graduating high school and going to college, but my sister was the first Lo Paro to do it. When I think of how many things changed so drastically for my parents, and especially between my parents’ generation and mine, it really drives home the point that I’m very lucky to be here.

It has enriched my life

When My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out in 2002, I was about 11 years old, but I already saw the striking similarities between that movie’s characters and my own vibrant Italian family. We own an Italian restaurant, all talk very loudly and interrupt each other constantly, and even though our food isn’t as ostentatious and strange as theirs, our food culture dominates our lives.

Growing up Italian-American, I often didn’t know the English names for things like “undershirt” or the crumb of the bread. There were words I pronounced wrong (because my mother did) and things we did at home that were completely foreign to my friends.

But my family, especially my cousins, were (and still are) my best friends. Growing up Italian, I was always very aware that family was the most important aspect of your life: that the people who surround you, share your culture, your background, and your heritage are in a unique position to understand you and support you through everything. Without that support system, I know I’d be in a much worse place.

On Thanksgiving, about 30 of us will gather in my parents’ dining and living rooms and drink a lot of wine, eat through like five courses (including a pasta course, and at least an hour between courses), not to mention fruit and nuts and coffee and dessert, and spend the entire day (we start at 2 and go well past midnight) being thankful that we’re here, together, sharing our heritage and our accidental Americanness, and always aware of where we came from. I’m constantly thankful for that.

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